The Geek’s Reading List – Week of July 1st 2016
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) Tesla driver using autopilot killed in crash
Well that didn’t take long. Many media outlets are falsely referring to this as the first death associated with a driverless or autonomous car and Tesla’s “Autopilot” is nothing of the sort. Based on the accident report it is clear the truck driver was at fault and based on Tesla’s comments it is equally clear the autobrake did not work. As is typical, the company immediately shifted blame to the driver who was foolish enough to assume the technology worked. As they did when their vehicles showed a propensity of bursting into flames after collisions they also trotted out misleading statistics: the figure they quote for million miles/death includes motorcyclists, drunk or inexperienced drivers, people not driving on divided highways, etc.. A comparable figure would be for an experienced driver operating a luxury car on a divided highway and would doubtless paint a much less rosy picture. Most likely, autobrake systems produced by companies such as Toyota, Daimler, and Volvo which do not rely on their customers to test their products probably would “notice” a truck in their path. Of course this could be a freak accident: a single data point doesn’t tell you how dangerous or slipshod a system is. I predict we won’t have to wait long for the next fatality: only 6 weeks ago we learned of another incident where a Tesla accelerated into a stopped van. I got a number of tips for this story. Thanks to my friends Duncan Stewart, Thanos Moschopoulos, and Nick Tang.
“Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,” Tesla said in a blog post entitled “A Tragic Loss.” … The company stressed the rare nature of the crash. “This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated,” Tesla said. “Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles.””
2) How Oracle’s business as usual is threatening to kill Java
Oracle is struggling as a company, with new license sales (the only number that matters for a software company) down double digits in the past year. Whether or not they are panicking yet, Oracle’s database solutions are simply not in the toolbox for the current generation of developers. Understandably the company needs to cut back on non-money making activities such as Java. The time has come for Java to be GNU licensed or replaced.
“For months as Oracle Corporation’s attorneys have battled Google in the courts over the use of Java interfaces in Android’s Davlik programming language, Oracle’s Java development efforts have slowed. And in the case of Java EE, they’ve come to a complete halt. The outright freeze has caused concerns among companies that contribute to the Java platform and among other members of the Java community—a population that includes some of Oracle’s biggest customers. Oracle employees that worked on Java EE have told others in the community that they have been ordered to work on other things. There has also been open talk of some Java EE developers “forking” the Java platform, breaking off with their own implementation and abandoning compatibility with the 20-year-old software platform acquired by Oracle with the takeover of Sun Microsystems six years ago. Yet Oracle remains silent about its plans for Java EE even as members of the governing body overseeing the Java standard have demanded a statement from the company.”
3) Moore’s Law and the End of the Technological Society
I don’t think Moore’s Law will end, it’s just that its slope will slow from a 30% improvement per year to a few percent, and that will happen over a few decades. Regardless, the author provides an interesting perspective and some coo charts.
“Our society has changed dramatically thanks to, among other factors, the emergence of consumer electronics and the omnipresence of computers, due to the constant improvement of their performance and the drop in price. This has been possible because, for the last 40 years, the capacity of integrated circuits has doubled every two years, according to an empirical rule known as Moore’s Law. However, several factors have conspired to make this rule begin to stop being valid. What economic and social consequences will this fact have?”
4) Terabyte terror: It takes special databases to lasso the Internet of Things
This article ties into the earlier piece on Oracle and Java. Many modern applications deal with a lot of distributed data and that causes issues with a centralized database model. Not only are these new architectures structured differently, for the most part they are open source and free software.
“In those 4,000 Walgreens, there are something like 1 million sensors. Riptide CEO Mike Franco said that the data coming out of them runs the gamut. Some of the sensors sample data once a minute, some every 5 minutes, and others sample at 15-minute intervals. Some change values. There are no consistent time stamps, no consistent time zones, and no consistent names of data points. “It’s very, very unstructured,” Franco said. What is consistent, then? It’s all time series data—a lot of time series data. For the past three years, Walgreen’s sensor data output has equaled about 5 terabytes. Riptide knew it needed a data storage system and architecture that could scale without degrading. The single core reason it went with NoSQL was the distributed nature of Cassandra and DataStax, Franco said. “We had plenty of use cases where the data got big, hard drives filled up, so we just added more nodes, and we upgraded the hardware. Just the whole horizontal elasticity of the NoSQL database systems we’re using is the No. 1 driver for us.””
5) Why Google could make smartphones interesting again
I don’t see how smartphones can get interesting again since there really isn’t much in the way of innovation in the space and little room for any. What Google can do is to deliver better products at power prices to get more Android devices into the hands of people who don’t have one already. I usually buy my phones directly from Google (it’s the cheapest way to get a Nexus phone) so I am keen to see what they decide to do.
“Get ready for the Google phone? According to a new report from the Telegraph, Google may be working on its own high-end smartphone and looking to compete head-to-head with Apple’s iPhone. “Now, wait a minute,” you may be saying. Google already has its own smartphones — the Nexus line of devices. Those phones are made in partnership with companies such as Huawei, LG and HTC. The Nexus program isn’t going away. But the Telegraph’s report seems to indicate that Google is looking to control more on its own. What’s not clear is whether that could be a part of the Nexus program or not. It may seem a little strange for Google to be refocusing on smartphone manufacturing now, when the growth of smartphone sales is slowing — in some cases to a halt. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”
6) Stop Using Google Trends
Immediately after Brexit there were a number of media reports which were cited over and over again which show Google Trends searches suggested people had no idea what was going on. Of course, this is probably true for some voters on either side but as this item shows Google Trends data doesn’t always mean what people think it means. Not that that means those stories will be retracted or anything – such is journalism.
“Google Trends is a very interesting product, as it gives us real-time data on how people are using Google. Google the Address Bar of the Internet, so if you need information on a topic, just type in “Euros” and you’ll have the scores and times of every game of the UEFA Euros Championship. Google can then track that interest in a topic and we can see it. But what shouldn’t you use Google Trends for? Well, until people start using it appropriately, everything.”
7) Google’s free wifi at Indian railway stations is better than most of the country’s paid services
Google and Facebook have big dream over the long term in the developing world. The problem is that Internet infrastructure is far behind the rest of the world. This might change as 5G wireless is rolled out but until then, public WiFi is a very cost effective way of delivering broadband to the masses.
“In Mumbai, 100,000 people made use of the public wifi connection within a week of its debut. But it didn’t even take a day to attract that many users when the service launched in Bhubaneshwar, the capital city of the eastern Indian state of Odisha. “We’re seeing similar usage patterns emerge in tier II cities like Patna, Jaipur, Vishakhapatnam,” Google said. The free internet is much faster than the 3G internet that is most widely used in India. On average, users of the free railway-station internet—despite being in transit, and being limited to one hour of use per person per day—utilize 15 times more data than they would consume on 3G in a day, Google said.”
8) Wi-Fi gets multi-gigabit, multi-user boost with upgrades to 802.11ac
WiFi is at the leading edge of wireless technology which is moving along at a remarkable place. Wireless is essentially applied math and ever improving semiconductor technology allows for implementation of ever move sophisticated techniques such as MIMO and beamforming, which leads to ever more effective power being received or delivered to the receiver and thus permitting greater data rates or range. 5G wireless will implement many of the same technologies.
“The Wi-Fi Alliance industry group is now certifying products that can deliver multi-gigabit speeds and improve coverage in dense networks by delivering data to multiple devices simultaneously. The new certification program, announced today, focuses on the so-called “Wave 2” features of the 802.11ac specification. 802.11ac is a few years old, but it includes several important features that were not available at launch. One such feature is MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple-input, and multiple-output), which we wrote a feature on in May 2014. MU-MIMO is powered by multi-user beamforming technology that lets wireless access points send data streams to at least three users simultaneously. Without MU-MIMO, routers stream to just one device at a time but switch between them very fast so that users don’t notice a slowdown except when lots of devices are on the network.”
9) Li-Fi, the New Frontier in Communications
Yeah, well, there are plenty of disadvantages to Li-Fi was well: both ends need to see the light. You can rely on some bouncing off walls and so on but that means a transceiver in every room, and your smartphone only works when it is out in the open. In contrast a single Wi-Fi access point can serve hundreds of square meters, you don’t need line of sight, and you can even completely conceal wireless devices. In a small area, the limitation is rarely bandwidth, especially with modern Wi-Fi such as 802.11ac.
“There are several advantages to Li-Fi. First, there is speed; the rapid flashing of the LED, imperceptible to the eye, permits speeds of theoretical transmission in the order of gigabits per second (Gbps), between 100 and 1,000 times faster than current Wi-Fi, which operates in the range of megabits per second. Some practical applications in the real world have reached 1 Gbps, but there is still much room for improvement; the speed of 224 Gbps in bidirectional communication has already been reached in the lab.”
10) Wireless Needs To Be 10 to 100 Times Faster, Says FCC Chair
I am a firm believer that 5G wireless could become competitive with wireline wireless. MIMO and beam forming should enable very cost effective delivery of very high speeds and a fixed station is much easier to design much better than a mobile device, especially when using MIMO and beamforming.
“Proponents of the move to 5G wireless data speeds got a big boost from the government last week. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his support for a rapid move toward fifth-generation wireless technology at a speech at the National Press Club. In his “The Future of Wireless: A Vision for U.S. Leadership in a 5G World” speech, Wheeler laid out a list of the advantages of moving to 5G communication infrastructure.”
11) What media companies don’t want you to know about ad blockers
There is a lot of truth in this article however saying that ad networks were “hijacked” is not true: there is no effort to quality control so malware distributors have no need to hijack anything: they can just become advertisers. Until advertising networks make even a small effort at quality control (which would not be that hard) ad blocking is a basic security measure.
“Thompson did not say one word in his keynote address about the significant security benefits of ad blockers, which is ironic, because his paper was one of several news organizations that served its users ransomware—a particularly vicious form of malware that encrypts the contents of your computer and forces you to pay the perpetrators a ransom in bitcoin to unlock it—through its ad networks just a few months ago. Several major news sites—including the Times, the BBC, and AOL—had their ad networks hijacked by criminal hackers who attempted to install ransomware on readers’ computers.”
12) Students are demanding the facts about coding bootcamps
The for-profit education sector is never shy to separated students from their money and it gets a lot easier when there is a supply/demand imbalance in the labor market as there is for software development right now. Setting aside the quality of the education the claims are, quite frankly, impossible to believe: a 100% placement rate? Why not claim 110%? Either way, when supply catches up with demand a lot of these people will be missing a checkmark on their resume and they will find it hard to find employment.
“In 2012 coding bootcamps began offering courses in software development and promising graduates new careers in technology. The schools, now backed by hundreds of millions in VC funding, will educate about 30,000 students in 2016, and rake in just shy of half a billion in tuition fees. Most schools claim nearly 100% graduation and placement rates. But these claims are mostly unverified and just how schools arrive at them largely undisclosed. Prospective students look to outcomes statistics because it’s the only way to gauge their chances for success — bootcamps don’t have decades or centuries of reputations like colleges.”
13) Spotify says Apple won’t approve a new version of its app because it doesn’t want competition for Apple Music
Frankly it is hard to care about which side is right on this: Apple maintains “walled garden” and it alone decides what apps people can run on iPhones. Spotify appears to be trying to break the mold and is claiming that Apple is “afraid of competition”, which is probably the case, except Apple is a particularly mercenary corporation and they will do whatever they can to make money.
“Spotify says Apple is making it harder for the streaming music company to compete by blocking a new version of its iPhone app. In a letter sent this week to Apple’s top lawyer, Spotify says Apple is “causing grave harm to Spotify and its customers” by rejecting an update to Spotify’s iOS app. The letter says Apple turned down a new version of the app while citing “business model rules” and demanded that Spotify use Apple’s billing system if “Spotify wants to use the app to acquire new customers and sell subscriptions.””
14) 99-Million-Year-Old Bird Wings Found Encased in Amber
It is amazing what they find preserved in amber. I found it particularly interesting that birds appeared about 150 million years ago – for some reason I thought they diverged about 80 million years ago. It is worthwhile to look through the slide show.
“While birds and dinosaurs are related, the giant lizards didn’t directly evolve into modern birds. The first ancient birds began appearing during the Late Jurassic Period about 150 million years ago and then spent millions of years flapping in the shadows of their larger cousins. While scientists have uncovered many ancient bird fossils over the years, they are rarely very clear because their feathers and hollow bones don’t hold up nearly as well to the fossilization process as mammals, lizards, and the like, Kristin Romey reports for National Geographic. For the most part, researchers have had to make do with faint imprints of wings left behind in rock and amber.”
15) Mystery file in preview build hints at Windows 10 subscriptions
I figure the major reason Microsoft is giving free Windows 10 updates is that they are trying to extend their Software as a Service (SaaS) model across their entire customer base. Most likely they will maintain a sort of basic Windows architecture and charge subscription fees for new features and functionality. They already do this for many business customers so it is not much of a stretch.
“The latest preview builds of Windows 10 include a small mystery. Buried in the System32 folder of build 14376, alongside 590 other .exe files, is a file whose name is guaranteed to raise eyebrows: UpgradeSubscription.exe. That file has been part of other recent preview builds, but has managed to remain under the radar until now. In the file’s properties, it’s described as the Windows Upgrade to Subscription Tool, and its date and time stamp corresponds to other administrative tools in the same build. See for yourself:”
16) Google Found Disastrous Symantec and Norton Vulnerabilities That Are ‘As Bad As It Gets’
Symantec and Norton represent the old way of preventing malware attacks: namely build a wall and hope people don’t get through it. It didn’t work for the Maginot Line and it no longer works for more sophisticate malware. The fact these vulnerabilities were found is not surprising.
“Google’s “project zero” team, a group of security analysts tasked with hunting for computer bugs, discovered a heap of critical vulnerabilities in Symantec and Norton security products. The flaws allow hackers to completely compromise people’s machines simply by sending them malicious self-replicating code through unopened emails or un-clicked links. The vulnerabilities affect millions of people who run the company’s endpoint security and antivirus software, rather ironically to protect their devices. Indeed, the flaws rendered all 17 enterprise products (Symantec brand) and eight consumer and small business products (Norton brand) open to attack.”
17) Large botnet of CCTV devices knock the snot out of jewelry website
Internet of Things (IoT) devices tend to have pretty shoddy security, a fact worth noting because many of them are sitting inside your firewall. The most recent largescale hack shows how a lack of security can be used to run a bot net (when they aren’t interested in stealing your bank information). Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.
“Researchers have encountered a denial-of-service botnet that’s made up of more than 25,000 Internet-connected closed circuit TV devices. The researchers with Security firm Sucuri came across the malicious network while defending a small brick-and-mortar jewelry shop against a distributed denial-of-service attack. The unnamed site was choking on an assault that delivered almost 35,000 HTTP requests per second, making it unreachable to legitimate users. When Sucuri used a network addressing and routing system known as Anycast to neutralize the attack, the assailants increased the number of HTTP requests to 50,000 per second. The DDoS attack continued for days, causing the Sucuri researchers to become curious about the origins of the attack. They soon discovered the individual devices carrying out the attack were CCTV boxes that were connected to more than 25,500 different IP addresses. The IP addresses were located in no fewer than 105 countries around the world.”
18) Hackers steal $10 million from a Ukrainian bank through SWIFT loophole
This isn’t the first profitable use of SWIFT by hackers. Lucky for the hackers, as the article relates the banks are not keen to share information on the hacks which makes it ever harder for countermeasures to be developed.
“The organization said that such hacks usually take months to complete. After breaking into a financial institution’s internal networks, hackers will take time to study the bank’s internal processes and controls. Then, using the knowledge and access they have gathered, the hackers will begin to submit fraudulent money orders to webs of offshore companies, allowing them to siphon off millions of dollars. ISACA said that the hackers likely used publicly available information and tools to commit the theft. The organization also added that the same hack had likely spread to other banks in the Ukrainian financial system. “Banks now are not sharing such information at all and are afraid of publicity,” said Aleksey Yankovsky, head of ISACA’s Kyiv division.”
19) Diabetes Breakthrough Nears With Medtronic’s Artificial Pancreas
Diabetics try to control their condition through timely blood assays and, in many cases, insulin injections. The pancreas doesn’t work every few hours: it provides continuous control and feedback and that is the advantage of this device. It still seems a bit clunky and requires frequent replacement and recalibration of sensors but it is probably a big improvement over traditional approaches.
“While innovations in recent years made monitoring and injecting insulin easier, the potential approval of the MiniMed 670G would mark the first time that diabetics could turn over part of their daily routine to a machine. It measures blood sugar every five minutes and automatically administers or withholds micro-doses of insulin to keep patients in their target range. “Patients are working 24 hours a day now,” said Richard Bergenstal, executive director of Park Nicollet’s International Diabetes Center in Minneapolis, who led the trial. “We want them to get control without spending every hour of the day worrying about their diabetes or preparing for the next event.””
20) Testing for malaria—or cancer—at home, via cheap paper strips
The technology is interesting but the problem with medical tests is often not as much detecting something as false positives. So if 1,000 people test themselves you can end up with far more cancer or malaria scares than actual sick people.
“What if testing yourself for cancer or other diseases were as easy as testing your blood sugar or taking a home pregnancy test? In a few years, it might be. Chemists at The Ohio State University are developing paper strips that detect diseases including cancer and malaria—for a cost of 50 cents per strip. The idea, explained Abraham Badu-Tawiah, is that people could apply a drop of blood to the paper at home and mail it to a laboratory on a regular basis—and see a doctor only if the test comes out positive. The researchers found that the tests were accurate even a month after the blood sample was taken, proving they could work for people living in remote areas.”